A Hero of Our Time

Jack Nelson is the chief Washington correspondent for The Times. In the 1960s, he was the paper's Atlanta bureau chief and covered the civil rights movement

John Lewis was the first protester to disembark from a Freedom Ride bus in Montgomery, Ala., on May 20, 1960, to face hundreds of angry whites armed with baseball bats, bricks, pipes, tire irons and other weapons. They ran at the bus from all directions, screaming, "Get the niggers, get the niggers." Lewis was knocked cold by a burly white man swinging a wooden Coca-Cola crate.

Five years later, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala., Lewis was leading a voting rights protest march of several hundred blacks across Edmund Pettus bridge when state troopers and mounted members of a sheriff's posse bore down on them, swinging clubs and firing tear gas. As the short, stocky Lewis knelt to pray, a trooper fractured his skull with a club.

Lewis used to say that lightning and snakes--those two great Southern bugaboos--were the only things he was afraid of. Journalists who covered civil rights demonstrations in the South in the 1960s didn't think John Lewis was afraid of anything. We used to joke that when a trooper swinging a billy club approached, John Lewis just bowed his head.

During the 1960s' demonstrations, Lewis was arrested at least 40 times and was beaten so often he lost count. No other civil rights leader suffered so much abuse over such a long period of time. And none of them--not even his idol, Martin Luther King Jr.--remained more dedicated to the principles of nonviolent protest against injustice.

A shy, humble man of deep convictions, Lewis lacked the charisma of such civil rights figures as King, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. Yet his compelling autobiography, "Walking With the Wind," helps us understand how this son of poor Alabama sharecroppers not only survived the turbulent '60s but rose to become a heroic figure and an influential member of Congress.

In his early days in the civil rights movement, Lewis felt he lacked leadership qualities and had no ambition to be a leader, but fellow students who admired his courage, outspokenness and dedication to nonviolence pushed him forward. His election in 1963 as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he frankly acknowledges, was due to no special leadership skills but to the fire he had been through up to that point, including 24 arrests.

A key figure in almost every major movement event of the '60s, Lewis repeatedly demonstrated a quiet determination that inspired thousands of other demonstrators during the Nashville sit-ins; the Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered a controversial speech; and the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

Born on a farm in poverty-stricken Pike County, Ala., Lewis was raised by simple, hard-working parents who were devout Baptists. John, the third of the 10 Lewis children, was more than a little eccentric. When he became deeply religious as a child, he used to preach to the chickens in his care, Bible in hand, he even presided over religious burials for those that died. At 16, he preached his first church sermon and became known as Pike County's "Boy Preacher."

Early on, he was outspoken about injustices he saw: the back-breaking work of picking cotton that his family endured for measly wages, the Jim Crow balcony for "colored" in the only theater in nearby Troy, the town's "whites-only" public library, and the rickety old public schools for blacks where textbooks, marked up and dogeared, had been handed down by white students.

Lewis began picking cotton when he was 8 years old. He hated it. But he loved school and took to heart his parents' admonition to "get an education so you won't have to do what we're doing." So when school was in session and despite his parents telling him they needed him to work in the cotton field, he would slip out of the house and run to the school bus. Despite repeated scoldings by his father, he stubbornly insisted on "going to school no matter what."

For Lewis and for civil rights, 1955 was a watershed year. It was the year after the Supreme Court school desegregation ruling and, with segregationists mounting massive resistance and King mounting the Montgomery bus boycott, the word "movement" first came into vogue. Lewis, 15 at the time, was "shaken to the core" when he heard about the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago black killed while visiting relatives in Money, Miss. Till's crime? He had said "bye, baby" to a white woman clerk in a country store. Later, Lewis was enthralled upon hearing a King radio sermon. And in December of that year, the launching of the bus boycott after Rosa Parks was denied a seat in the front of a Montgomery bus changed Lewis' life "more than any event before or since."

He became a dedicated adherent of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. But like many of the young civil rights protesters in the South, he was going against the wishes of his parents. As far as the Lewises were concerned, decent black folks stayed out of trouble, and anyone arrested, regardless of the offense, was riffraff.

After his first arrest, in a protest in Nashville where he was attending Baptist Theological Seminary, he wrote to his parents, emphasizing that he had acted in accordance with his Christian faith. His mother, shocked and embarrassed, wrote back: "You went to school to get an education. You should get out of this movement, just get out of that mess."

But Lewis had made up his mind and never considered leaving the movement. He always said his well-known stubborn streak and religious faith were key to his sticking to his principles and surviving the 1960s. He stood up to militants when they threatened to meet violence with violence, and he stood steadfast in defense of King when they mocked him as "de Lawd." He insisted on doing what he saw as "the right thing," which was not always considered "the black thing." He resisted efforts by SNCC, which had grown increasingly militant, to drive out whites, a stand he must have known jeopardized his position as chairman.

Shortly thereafter, Carmichael, a fiery militant who, as Lewis says, liked nothing more than to "scare the hell out of white people," rounded up enough votes in a late-night coup to depose Lewis. As Lewis' friend Bond, then SNCC's communications director, told him at the time, "the crazies" had taken over. Lewis regards the episode as one of the worst of his life. SNCC quickly turned into a disruptive force that fostered a call for "black power," its leaders advocating "hate for all white things." The organization "shrank and withered" and eventually lost so much outside support that it disbanded.

Lewis, on the other hand, saw nonviolent civil disobedience as the only practical way to challenge white supremacy, and he stuck doggedly to the course even though it was spurned not only by his parents but by leaders of old mainstream civil rights organizations. He viewed Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP leader who subsequently became the first black Supreme Court justice, to be "a good man and historic figure." But Marshall's emphasis on legal proceedings and his disdain for nonviolent protests convinced Lewis that "our revolt was as much against this nation's traditional black leadership structure as it was against racial segregation and discrimination."

Although the movement forms the heart of "Walking With the Wind," a revealing section on Lewis' political career describes his controversial 1986 race for a congressional seat against Bond, then his close friend. Lewis, at times almost painfully self-effacing, refers to himself as "square" and correctly observes that Bond was widely seen as a much more appealing public figure. During the campaign, Bond was often described as "tall, slim, handsome, dashing, erudite, articulate," while he was "short, squat . . . thick-necked, balding, dark, scowling . . . a share-cropper's son."

Bond had the backing of many celebrities and political figures and was widely considered a shoo-in. Some of Lewis' friends advised him against waging what undoubtedly would be a fruitless race. Lewis, taking some satisfaction in the fact that he often had been underestimated, campaigned feverishly and worked harder than Bond. In a key debate that showed his tough side, Lewis offered to take a drug test and challenged Bond to take one. Bond refused, and political analysts say that sealed his fate. Lewis was elected and has been reelected five times and now is a chief deputy House Democratic whip. Bond went on to become a college professor and is chairman of the NAACP.

Lewis remains committed to integration and lives by his own motto: "I continue to go with my conscience, not my complexion." He has traveled extensively as one of Congress' most outspoken champions of human rights. He has walked picket lines and spoken at countless union rallies, and in 1988 he was arrested outside the South African Embassy demonstrating against racial oppression. He went to Moscow to address the Supreme Soviet on human rights and to meet with refuseniks, Jews who had been denied permission to leave for Israel.

Addressing the current state of race relations in the United States, Lewis argues passionately for the government to deal with the problems of the poorest communities, calling them "the worst situation black America has faced since slavery." He is much more pessimistic about the North than the South. In the North, he sees a starker kind of urban poverty that breeds racism and a sense of deep despair among blacks. In Harlem, he recounts listening to "speakers rave about what they were going to do with 'whitey,' and it seemed sad, very hopeless." In the South, he finds people more inclined to have a sense of purpose and community and "a spirit instilled by the civil rights movement that is still felt and remembered today, a spirit that was not and is not felt in the same way in the North."

After almost 40 years of fighting the good fight, Lewis finally may be getting the recognition he deserves with the publication of both this memoir and David Halberstam's "The Children," a sweeping, spellbinding account of the civil rights movement that focuses on John Lewis and seven other leaders of the movement. Halberstam paints a portrait of Lewis that is deeply admiring.

Both books cover similar civil rights battlegrounds, and they are complementary. "The Children" provides a much broader look at the movement and detailed profiles of key characters. "Walking With the Wind" offers an astute first-hand account of events that could be supplied only by a key player. Both are destined to become classics in civil rights literature.

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